Peter Rabbit has something of an identity crisis

By Leigh Monson
    Children’s entertainment generally falls into two modes for how it endeavors to entertain. The first is to try to provide jokes and stories that appeal to all ages, or at the very least to focus primarily on the sensibilities of a younger audience with the hopes that adults won’t be bored by the experience. The second is to layer the proceedings with irony, providing pop cultural references or winking nods that will likely go over children’s heads while simultaneously providing a basic level of exaggerated shenanigans to keep the kids engaged. Peter Rabbit tries to have it both ways, and the result is predictably lackluster for the lack of focus.
   Based on the stories by Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit follows the titular “hero”—more on that in a moment—as he endeavors to provide his sisters and cousin access to Farmer McGregor’s garden while relying on the protection of the kindly human Bea (Rose Byrne). However, when McGregor suddenly expires, his nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) comes to fix up the property for sale. Peter (voiced by James Corden) butts heads with the younger McGregor as he tries to lay claim over the garden vegetables, but things become complicated when Thomas and Bea start to realize an attraction for one another that Peter sees as a threat to his own relationship with Bea.
     For being an adaptation of a pretty simple series of stories, Peter Rabbit has a lot of plot threads running concurrently, probably too many for the target demographic of small children to entirely comprehend. There isn’t a shortage of age appropriate shenanigans and dancing animal antics to behold, and though the film has an obnoxious propensity to lean on the same jokes again and again, that repetition should probably play well with children with short attention spans.
     The biggest problem emerges from the film’s attempt to play as a self-aware farce, which doesn’t so much make witty observations about the simplicity of the source material as they gratingly remind one that adult humor really doesn’t belong in a story that should otherwise be relatively wholesome. There’s a theme of taking the wind out of the storybook tale’s more fantastical elements in favor of grounded nods to reality, but those moments happen too infrequently and without internal consistency to the point where they are more likely to pull adults out of the experience rather than immersed as their kids. Meanwhile, Corden’s version of Peter is course, rude, and mostly unsympathetic, which admittedly plays into a lesson about Peter learning responsibility for his actions, but more often than not I found myself sympathizing with Thomas for how consistently Peter messes with him, rather than seeing Peter’s foibles as opportunities for him to grow and learn.
     There’s probably enough pop dance numbers here to keep young kids from squirming in their seats for an hour and a half, but parents shouldn’t expect to walk away with a new family favorite. This will likely show up in DVD collections to be played over and over, and while there are certainly worse things to end up as background noise for the preschooler to amuse themselves with, there isn’t much to Peter Rabbit to encourage bonding with your offspring.

2/5 stars

Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.